Sultry Photos Cause Parent Opposition to School iPad Program

Despite firewalls, browser history monitoring and other measures, some young students have been exposed to adult content while using iPad tablets in their schools, leading some parents to object.

by Luz Moreno-Lozano, Austin American-Statesman / May 8, 2019
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(TNS) — Nearly 350 parents of students in the Eanes Independent School District in Austin, Texas, have signed a petition requesting the district place their children in a classroom that does not use iPads.

Eanes Elementary parent Meaghan Edwards is leading the effort after her first grader was able to view photos of topless and scantily clad women in racy poses on his school-assigned iPad. She and other parents plan to present their concerns to the school board.

The petition has drawn assurances from the district that safety measures are in place and usually work and has sparked debate among parents in online forums and on social media over the merits of technology in the classroom.

Edwards said her son and another student began looking at inappropriate pictures while in class in early March. Both kids screen shot the Google images to their device. When other classmates saw what they were looking at, the teacher was alerted and called Edwards in for a conference.

Edwards said she was bothered by what she saw as a lack of cybersecurity and concern at the district level. She started the petition to allow parents to opt their children out of the Learning and Engaging through Access and Personalization or LEAP (iPad) program. All Eanes students are assigned iPads to use for schoolwork. Elementary students only use them in the classroom, but middle and high school students are allowed to bring the tablets home.

"We are asking for the district to create one classroom per grade level that does not use an iPad," Edwards said. "I just don't think every child needs their own personal (device). It's too much for the district to manage, obviously, and we are seeing the iPads being used inappropriately."

Several parents are weighing in on both sides of the issue. Some have touted the benefits of the iPads to advance student knowledge and skills, while others have said iPads have opened the door to access inappropriate websites and have a negative impact on communication skills.

Last year at Bridgepoint Elementary, a second grader was working on her iPad when a pop-up ad appeared showing a topless woman and vulgar language, according to sources familiar with the incident. District officials confirmed they were informed by the school about the matter.

Superintendent Tom Leonard said the district has firewalls, web filters and cybersecurity in place for each of the devices but that sometimes inappropriate content can make it through the filters.

"It's not a situation where information is just flashing onto student's screens that is inappropriate," Leonard said. "The firewall is protecting that. We also know there are thousands of websites that come into existence often. The firewall needs to analyze those, and it takes some time to do that."

He said the district uses the best cybersecurity systems it can find and frequently upgrades when better products come on the market.

"I think we know in this world that no firewall is 100 percent failsafe," Leonard said. "Our (system) is pretty darn good."

He noted that money in the bond package voters approved on Saturday will go toward technology improvements. While there have been some issues reported by parents, Leonard said the program has been positive and beneficial for many other students and teachers. For example, he said, teachers can enlarge font on iPads for students with vision problems. The iPad also has audio features so students can listen to text read aloud.

Kelly Marwill, incoming booster club president for Cedar Creek Elementary, said her daughter has improved her reading comprehension with the iPad reader program and has become more confident in her skills.

"My daughter struggles with the anxiety of making a mistake while she's reading in front of the class," Marwill said. "With the iPad, she can read it, it records her, and then her teacher can go back and listen to it. And there are comprehension questions at the end. She went from an average reader to reading a whole grade level above in just a few months."

Other parents have said that the iPad gives their children the ability to work independently on math and other skills without disturbing the class. For middle and high school aged students, it allows them to collaborate with other students on class projects.

Not all parents are convinced iPads advance their children's education, however. Some who signed the digital petition posted concerns over excessive screen time and non-academic use of iPads. Similar concerns emerged at digital learning meetings among parents last fall.

Edwards said district officials have not adequately responded to parents' worries.

"What concerns me is there were no web filters in place to prevent the kids from accessing these images and it did not get flagged (by the teacher or district)," she said. "In my house, if my kids are using the iPad, I look at their browser history every night."

Leonard said the district frequently tracks students' browsing history. As the software improves, he said the district will be alerted to more incidents. A new program the district is piloting will allow parents to monitor browsing history at home as well. Digital wellness resources are also available for parents to help monitor screen time, teach parents about parental controls and about cyberbullying and social media.

Since the Eanes Elementary incident in March, the district has tightened restrictions on Internet content students can access during the school day, officials said, and additional web filters have been placed on devices to block search results for mature content.

As for eliminating the program, Leonard said the district could create an environment without technology, but it would be difficult. He said creating iPad-free classrooms would make teachers' jobs more difficult and noted that the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards sometimes require the use of technology, which the district would have to find a way to supplement.

The district issued an email to parents May 7 acknowledging the iPad debate and informing parents of the Eanes approach to technology in the classroom. In the email, Leonard stressed moderation in technology use and emphasized the partnership among parents, the district and teachers.

"We appreciate your help as we navigate a rapidly changing world with technology devices," Leonard said. "Together, we are able to ensure students remain healthy and safe, while also equipping them with the learning tools and self-disciplines for future success."

Sam Goodner, a member of the Eanes task force on digital learning created last fall, said the district needs to communicate better with parents about how technology is used in the classroom at each grade level. But, he said, there is no "perfect solution" to the iPad debate.

"I've spoken to parents who share Meaghan's concern, and there is a pretty vocal minority who would prefer to not see any technology at all until high school," he Goodner said. "I think technology does give teachers and their classrooms tools and capability to do things that are not possible on pen and paper or white board. (The) iPads are a very small part of the tools they use, especially in elementary school."

©2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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